Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sense of place (2)

Jorge Luis Borges and his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in their joint introduction to the English translation of Borges’ short stories, The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969, state:

Perhaps the chief justification for this book is the translation itself, which we have undertaken in a new way. Working closely together in daily sessions, we have tried to make these stories read as though they had been written in English. We do not consider English and Spanish as compounded of sets of easily interchangeable synonyms; they are two quite different ways of looking at the world [my italics], each with a nature of its own. English, for example, is far more physical than Spanish.

They go on to say that they have re-thought every sentence of the original Spanish and not so much translated it, as rewritten it in English.

This raises another issue regarding sense of place. In the post below I noted how southern writers are indubitably shaped by their locale, but that, it seems to me, is a matter of voice and character and sensibility. It affects the outlook of the characters and, I suppose, of the author as well. It is, as Welty indicated, a largely unconscious process.

What Borges and di Giovanni are saying is that the very language itself is affected by this sense of place: the English language is more robust than Spanish, and this will change the inflections and style of the piece. Not just the whole nature of the narrative, but even the way it is written, is shaped by this sense of place. And on that basis, their contention that one can’t simply write a straight translation from one language into another, synonym for synonym, metaphor for metaphor, seems possible. But can one truly say that a sense of place – be it the American south or on a national level – is so deeply ingrained?


Carlos said...

That’s an interesting question. I don't know the answer. I'll just contribute that for years, through my wanderings in the academy (and especially in Spanish Lit.), I'd always felt there should be two types of translation: a pedagogical one as direct as possible, with another attempting something like what Borges and Thomas describe in your post, for general consumption.

Of course, I understood the practical and artistic reasons for not having such a bifurcation, however, I was continually pained by the many awkward translations of great Hispanic poets, where whole metaphors were changed, and grammar forced into English idioms when a direct conversion would do the image more justice. In other words, re-write the damn thing in English, or else give me the same form and image with English words substituted-- but the rather random mixing of the two schools of thought produces an idiosyncratic final product that is neither translation nor rewrite. (A professional translator would probably say, duh!, therein lies the art of translation... true enough, but I always found such split decisions annoying as a student of letters.)

As stated, I was mostly working with poetry where the issue of translation is inherently problematic because a direct translation may not communicate the intended meaning, and an alternate writing creates a substantially new meaning. Still, I guess as I think about it the issue is more or less the same in narrative... . Except, as you seem to imply, Tom, the justification for the 'rewrite' school of thought is even less compelling in narrative than it might be in poetry (-where I was always a supporter of a more direct translation anyway). With the exception of turns of phrase or culture-bound allusions, I can't think of too many obstacles that can't be 'written around' in narrative translation, even if more words are used to explain/describe the events and actions.

Still, I am apt to give Borges the benefit of the doubt and compare the versions before making a decision, as the force of his genius demands it.

Tom Conoboy said...

One of my favourite poems, which I've written about on here before, is Hallaig by Sorley Maclean, originally written in Gaelic. THere are two translations, one by Maclean himself and the other by Seamus Heaney. The Heaney version, for me, completely lacks the mystery and beauty of the Maclean version. I feel sure this is because Heaney, while being a great poet, is not from the Scottish islands and cannot work his way into the psyche of the poem in the way that Sorley can.

The poem is a musing on history and tradition and belonging. The narrator is looking over a deserted space where, once, his ancestors lived, before they were cleared in the Highland Clearances. The ghosts of the past are all around. Man is linked inextricably with his surroundings, and his surroundings help to shape him. There is, in Sorley's translation, an almost mystical sense of connection, which I don't think Heaney quite captures.

So I think I may be starting to answer my original question. Perhaps that sense of place truly is burned into you.

Carlos said...

True enough, but again, with verse I think the argument is stronger than in fiction. And perhaps in short fiction stronger than in novels. For me, it comes back to the number of difficult, 'untranslatable' passages that must be dealt with, as a ratio to the whole. Without knowing “Hallaig”, I’ll venture that the missing sense of mystery and beauty in the latter translation can be tied back to several poor word choices or troublesome passages… though you are most probably correct that such ‘errors’ are directly tied to Heaney’s lack of connection to the landscape. (I’ll look for your discussion of the poem, btw.)

In this regard, I agree with you about the fundamentality of place in writing, Southern Literature being your classic example. On another thread you and others explored a variant of this issue, and you came down strongly on the side that a writer is always tied to the time and place of their writing, as context. (akin to: 'Shakespeare wouldn't be Shakespeare if...') I agree with that, and believe that the transferability of 'universal themes' doesn't detract from that idea. Whether a work truly speaks to an audience is not due to its themes; it is due to whether the audience can connect with it, and the closer the contextual milieus, the more likely that communication is to occur (-at least without instruction, and maybe with it also).